ECC’s suit against Nestlé Nespresso, DKB and Eugster/Frismag dismissed

Case No. O2015_001 ¦ Decision of 12 July 2016 ¦ “Rejet; dispositifs ne reproduisent pas les conclusions”

As reported earlier on this Blog here, Ethical Coffee Company (ECC) had sued Nestlé Nespresso SA for patent infringement in early 2015; please see the report on the main hearing of 15 June 2016 on this Blog here for a review of the technical issues at stake.

The patent in suit is CH 701 971 B1; see Swissreg for further details. The only independent claim 1 of CH’971 reads as follows (emphasis added):

Dispositif pour la préparation d’une boisson extraite à partir d’une capsule (1) comprenant un support de capsule (4) et une cage a capsule (5) a l’intérieur de laquelle sont disposés au moins une entrée d’eau et des moyens de perçage de capsule, caractérise par le fait que ladite cage (5) est agencée de manière à déformer au moins partiellement toute capsule (1) constituée d’un matériau déformable au contact d’eau chaude, qui est disposée dans la cage (5), de manière à ce que la capsule (1) soit retenue dans la cage (5) consécutivement à son contact avec de l’eau chaude.

Structured according to the defendants’ feature analysis and (inofficially) translated into English:

M1: Device for preparing a drink extracted from a capsule (1)

M2: comprising a capsule support (4)

M3: and a capsule cage (5)

M4: inside which there are at least a water inlet and capsule-piercing means

M5: characterized in that said cage (5) is arranged in such a way as to deform, at least partially, any capsule (1), made of a material that can be deformed upon contact with hot water, which is placed in the cage (5)

M6: so that the capsule (1) is retained in the cage (5) following its contact with hot water.

In a nutshell, ECC claimed CH’971 is a patent for the technology it alleges Nestlé Nespresso uses to block its capsules, and there has been quite a hustle and bustle in the press beforehand — but the suit has been flatly dismissed. It took the FPC only less than 5 pages on the merits to come to this conclusion.

For injunctive relief to be granted, it is necessary that three criteria are met (see S2012_003, r 14):

(a) the request contains a detailed description of the attacked embodiment;

(b) the defendant actually uses this attacked embodiment; and

(c) this attacked embodiment is covered by the scope of the patent, either literally or under the doctrine of equivalents.

As to (a), i.e. the mere wording of the request, it is established case law that an admissible request must contain a detailed description of the incriminated act; see the decision 131 III 70 of the Supreme Court and decision O2012_033 of the FPC. This description must be so specific that a purely factual examination is enough to determine whether an act is prohibited. A description which requires a legal qualification or the interpretation of ambiguous technical expressions is insufficient. A request for an order can therefore be limited to the wording of a patent claim only if the wording of the patent claim itself fulfils these requirements. This was held to be the case here — notably also for the ‘million dollar phrase’ highlighted in the claim above which is literally recited in the request for injunctive relief. The FPC held that the phrase ‘toute capsule’ / ‘any capsule’ means (literally) any capsule that is suitable for use in the machines to prepare coffee, irrespective of whether or not the capsule is retained in the machine thereafter.

[…] l’expression «toute capsule» signifie dans le présent contexte toute capsule susceptible d’être utilisée dans le dispositif (machine à café) en question, de façon à permettre la préparation d’une boisson extraite (un café), ceci indépendamment de la question de savoir si une telle capsule est retenue dans la cage après l’extraction.

Thus, the FPC held that criterion (a) was properly met. However, this understanding of the phrase ‘toute capsule’ / ‘any capsule’ has been decisive for failure at the next bar (b), i.e. the test whether the defendant actually uses this attacked embodiment. Apparently, the plaintiff had admitted that ECC’s modified capsules were not retained in the attacked devices. Likewise, the defendant had submitted that not all capsules are retained in the attacked devices. Concluding, the FPC held that the attacked embodiments evidently did not retain ‘toute capsule’ / ‘any capsule’. The FPC did not see any room for interpretation of this phrase in the request, deviating from the ordinary meaning. If the plaintiff intended to give it a different meaning, it should have been explicitly recited in the request.

Il n’y a pas lieu d’interpréter les conclusions. Si la demanderesse entend conférer à une expression contenue dans les conclusions une signification différente que son sens ordinaire, ou si elle souhaite lui donner un sens moins étroit que sa signification ordinaire, alors elle doit le formuler de manière expresse dans la conclusion.

The FPC thus dismissed the suit already for this reason. For the sake of completeness, the FPC also briefly expanded on criterion (c), i.e. whether the attacked embodiment (and the request for injunctive relief) is covered by the scope of the patent. Note that the request did not at all refer to M1, M2 and M4. The request thus reached beyond the scope of protection conferred by the patent and the suit had to be dismissed for this reason, too. In passing, the FPC also questioned how the feature of at least a water inlet and capsule-piercing means inside the cage (5) should be realized at all; see feature M4.

The value in dispute had been fixed at CHF 3m; court fees amounted to CHF 100’000,– in accordance with Art. 1(1) CostR-PatC. Party compensation for legal representation was fixed to CHF 100’000,–, in accordance with the tariff; Art. 5 CostR-PatC (actual expenses of the defendants had been significantly higher, i.e. CHF 333’608,20).

It will be interesting to see decisions in other countries on this issue; please find the details on co-pending litigation elsewhere on this Blog here.

Reported by Ingo LUMMER and Martin WILMING

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Case No. O2015_001 ¦ Decision of 12 July 2016 ¦ “Rejet; dispositifs ne reproduisent pas les conclusions”

Ethical Coffee Company SA

./.

Nestlé Nespresso SA
DKB Household Switzerland AG
Eugster/Frismag AG

Board of Judges:

  • Dr. Dieter BRÄNDLE
  • Dr. Tobias BREMI
  • Dr. Daniel KRAUS
  • Dr. Herbert LAEDERACH
  • Kurt STOCKER

Reporting Judge:

  • Dr. Tobias BREMI
    (no interim assessment was established)

Court Clerk:

  • Susanne ANDERHALDEN

Representative(s) of Plaintiff:

Representative(s) of Defendants:

FULLTEXT OF THE DECISION

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